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First Mover: Red Rocks Columbia Heights

Welcome to our First Movers Series, which profiles owners who were the first to open a destination-caliber restaurant in now-hot hoods. Today we chat with James O'Brien, owner of Red Rocks Pizzeria, our First Mover pick for the 11th Street strip of Columbia Heights.

What was this area like when you first opened?

When James started construction on the original RedRocks in 2006, the only things around were Wonderland and Columbia Heights Coffee. Most of the surrounding structures were boarded up and abandoned, though the block was zoned mixed-use. The many corporate chains that populate 14th Street and its surrounding area--Giant, Target, Best Buy, Bed Bath & Beyond, etc.--were all still just an idea. James tells us they opened a year and a half after he opened RedRocks. 

What attracted you to this location?

James had just closed down Staccato in Adams Morgan and noticed that several of his friends were moving over to Columbia Heights for the affordable rents and accessibility to downtown. On a social level, Wonderland was really the place to be, but there were no restaurants nearby. The building--a red corner row house--had always caught his eye because of the big patio out front, and the fact that it was already zoned commercial was a big draw. Once he opened, all of the people going out later at Wonderland would come by RedRocks for dinner first--just as he'd hoped. He loves the idea of being the gathering place that brings the neighborhood together, and knew this was the location to make that happen.

What are your thoughts on the current and future state of the hood?

James points out that the parallel structure of Columbia Heights' commercial strips makes it a very unique neighborhood in DC. All of the corporate chains tend toward 14th Street, while the independent businesses gravitate towards 11th Street. This allows residents the best of both worlds--life in a quaint row house neighborhood with access to big-box convenience just a few blocks away. As for the hood's future, James hopes that 11th Street maintains its independent-business charm. While he is a fan of the Coupe and Meridian Pint, he hopes that those stay the biggest businesses on the block lest the area lose some of its "small-time charm." He tells us that as of now, the only new business he knows of coming to the area is a Filipino restaurant--possibly DC's first--that a friend of his is opening; definitely keeping with the area's identity.